by Kenneth Harmon
Kenneth Harmon lives in Fort Collins, Colorado. He is a retired Fort Worth police officer who spends his time raising four daughters and writing when he gets a chance. In 2009, he was a finalist for the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Zola Award. In 2010, his short fiction has appeared in Bewildering Stories, Dark Fire Fiction, Twisted Tongue Magazine, 69 Flavors of Paranoia, Necrology Shorts, and FlashShot.
The trailer door rattled under four heavy knocks. "Henrietta, Henrietta, I know you're in there. Get your ass out here, girl."
Henrietta glanced up from her plate of fried eggs, bacon, and toast. Across the table, Buck leaned back in his chair with a sigh. "Would you mind fetching me some prairie butter?"
Henrietta stood and walked into the kitchen, where a cockroach scampered across the counter toward the sink filled with dirty dishes. She lifted a skillet from the stove and returned to the table. Buck held up a piece of bread and Henrietta tilted the skillet to pour out bacon grease.
The banging on the door intensified. "Henrietta, darling, I got some boys who would like to see you."
She chewed her bottom lip. "Damn Clovis."
"Don't answer it," Buck said between bites.
"He won't go away, you know that."
Henrietta opened the door. Clovis stood on the top step, thumbs hitched inside the waist of his blue jeans, a patronizing smile on his thin face. His gaze lifted to Henrietta's eyes. "About time you answered. I was fixin to kick in your door."
"No you wasn't," Henrietta said staring past him. Two men sat in the cab of Clovis's rusting pickup. In the harsh glare of the morning sun, she couldn't make them out, but she knew they'd probably be young like the others. "What do you want, Clovis?"
"You know what I want, Henrietta. The same thing I've wanted every time I drive out here."
She glanced over her shoulder into the trailer at Buck, who sat at the table staring out the window toward a distant mesa. "I don't think so, not this time."
"Come on, Henrietta, you always say the same thing, but in the end you change your mind." He held up a pair of fifties. "Where else are you gonna make a fast fifty bucks?"
She stared at the money in his hand. "Nah, not this time." Henrietta started to close the door. Clovis threw out a boot to keep it from closing.
"Henry, come on. I know you need the money."
Henrietta clenched her teeth. Clovis knew she hated folks to call her by her old name. She looked back at Buck again and sighed. "I suppose it's the only way I'll get rid of you."
Clovis stepped from the door. "That's right. Now go doll yourself up, put on a pretty dress, something sexy." He turned to give thumbs up to the men in the truck.
Henrietta closed the door.
"Why do you cut a big gut for that idiot?" Buck said, without looking at her.
"It's my life," she said in a halting voice. "Besides, fifty dollars is a lot of money." Henrietta started toward their bedroom.
"Don't forget to shave," Buck called.
She paused at the bedroom door. "I shaved my legs yesterday."
"Not your legs, Henrietta, your face."
Henrietta stood in the cold shower staring down at her body. Her tiny sagging breasts seemed out of proportion compared to the rest of her and her ass was as flat as much of the Panhandle. A deep sense of shame burned inside her gut at what she had become. After showering, she slipped into the red sundress that Buck called her clown dress and applied light makeup and garish lipstick.
Buck looked up from his cup of coffee as she walked out of the room. "Is the circus in town?"
She ignored him and opened the door. Clovis waited with the men near his truck. Henrietta saw them clearly now, college boys, the kind with rich rancher daddies and mamas who squeezed into tight jeans to remind themselves how they managed to snag a rich man. The wooden steps creaked as Henrietta stepped down. She walked straight to the boys, who watched her approach with mouths agape. The taller of the boys turned to Clovis. "You lied; that ain't no woman, it's a man wearing a dress."
"If it's a woman," his friend said, "she's an ugly bitch."
The two boys laughed.
Clovis shot Henrietta a desperate glance before retreating to his truck. He returned with a yellowed newspaper article. "See here, Henry Willard, calf roping champion, Mesquite rodeo."
Henrietta watched the boys lean over the newspaper clipping. She knew the routine. They'd study the photograph for a while, look up at her, and then study the picture again before announcing their skepticism.
The taller boy cocked his head to spit. "That kind of looks like the same fellow."
"It is," Clovis said, "only now he's a woman."
"You're telling me this guy had his pecker whacked off?"
"Isn't that what you came to see?" Clovis asked.
"I ain't so sure that I want to see," the boy said.
His shorter friend nudged him in the ribs. "Come on, Dan, you chicken to look?"
"I ain't no chicken."
Clovis motioned with his hands for Henrietta to lift her dress. She did as instructed. The boys stared in wide-eyed amazement. "Oh my God," the shorter boy said, "he ain't got no . . ." He covered his mouth.
His friend turned away. "Let's go. I think I'm gonna be sick."
Clovis nodded, Henrietta's signal to cover herself. She lowered the dress and snatched the fifty from his hand. "See you soon," Clovis said behind her as Henrietta started toward the trailer.
Inside the trailer, Buck peeled back from the window that looked out onto the drive. "Another proud moment," he said as he started to search under piles of old newspapers. Henrietta ignored him, her fingers tightening over the money. "Have you seen my John B.?" He said, tossing aside dirty clothes from a pile of laundry on the floor.
"It's in the bedroom."
Buck grunted as he squeezed past her. He emerged wearing his Stetson. "You working tonight?"
"Leland has me on till close."
Buck paused at the door. "Then I'll see you when I see you."
As she watched him drive away, Henrietta felt her stomach tighten into a knot. They'd been together almost two years and she still couldn't define their relationship. He didn't love her, although he did try to have sex with her one night while in a drunken stupor. She pushed him away and he fell to the floor laughing. "I must have been out of my mind to want you," he said before stumbling out to the couch. His words cut, but the wound soon healed, for she had no interest in him sexually. In fact, she had no interest in any man, which made folks wonder why she felt the need to become a woman. A question she had tried to answer a hundred times without success. They could never understand feeling trapped inside the wrong body.
She retreated to the bedroom. Henrietta pulled a coffee can from under the bed, the word Amsterdam written on the lid in black marker. She removed a roll of fifty-dollar bills, took off the rubber band holding them, and added the new one. After returning the money, she pulled a folded envelope from the can and started to read the letter inside.
My Dearest Henrietta,
How time flies. I can't believe it has been a year since we met at John Hopkins. Do you remember our talks of the future? How we shared our hopes and fears. I pray that your dreams have come true and you are doing well. As for me, the world has changed in so many ways. For the first time in my life, I feel like the person that I was meant to be. My senses are alive. I breathe in the scent of spring flowers and shiver at the kiss of winter rain. I continue to grow into my new self. Doctor Henrich performed my labiaplasty and I am quite pleased with the results. I am considering facial feminization and breast implants. I may even undergo surgery on my voice. You must think so little of me, but do not hate me, for if I'm to become a woman, I want to be a whole woman, does this make sense?
I have moved to a flat beside the Amsterdam-Rhine Canal. You should see it in the summer when the boats are out, so many colors like butterflies floating over wildflowers. The people are very kind to me. No one cares who I used to be. Now I am Aretha, after the famous singer Aretha Franklin, yes, I know you are laughing at that. You should come here Henrietta. Come and stay with me. We can drink our morning coffee on the deck and argue about the shape of clouds. You could be happy here. Think about it.
Henrietta turned to stare at a photograph of a woman on top of the dresser. "Have I done the wrong thing, Mary? I wish you were here to answer me, to comfort me. I loved you. People don't believe me anymore when I tell them that, but you and I know the truth." Her gaze traveled to another picture, which showed her as a man holding a baby in his arms. Henrietta stuffed the letter back into the can and headed for the door.
She parked her car on a ridge that overlooked the back of the ranch style house. The traversing sun mounted the eastern sky and the inside of the car started to broil. Henrietta put down the windows in hope of capturing a breeze, but the desert wind provided no comfort. She waited for almost an hour, and was about to leave, when the patio door slid open and a woman stepped outside with a little blonde-haired girl. A smile crept over Henrietta's mouth as she watched the girl playing on a swing set.
"What are you doing here?"
Henrietta turned toward the voice of her son. "I didn't know you were here."
Travis stopped behind the door, forcing her to look back at him. He glared from under the brim of his cowboy hat. "You heard me."
She felt her mouth turn dry. "I wanted to see my granddaughter."
"Becky don't want to see you."
"I'm her granddaddy. I have a right to—"
"You ain't her granddaddy. Granddaddies don't wear no dresses and high heels. Now get out of here before I call the sheriff."
Henrietta looked back at the house. Becky had stopped playing. She stood with a hand over her eyes, staring up at his car. "I haven't seen her in three years; that ain't fair."
"Being fair's got nothing to do with it. You're the one who decided to become a freak; now get out of here."
Henrietta started the car. "Why do you hate me?"
"I don't hate you. I just don't love you. Now do us both a favor and stop coming around here."
Henrietta leaned against the bar waiting for Leland to fix the drinks for table six. The regular Friday night crowd filled the Double D Club. Drunken cowboy wannabes and their damsels in distress. Henrietta had learned to hate them, but she needed the job.
"Put enough booze in 'em and they ain't going to notice your five o'clock shadow," Leland always said. He returned with a tray and shoved it her direction.
"Here you go Henrietta."
She sighed and clutched the tray.
Three couples strolled into the bar. Henrietta watched them from the corner of her eye. They were young and from out of town. She sensed trouble. She took a deep breath and approached their booth. "Howdy ya'll, what can I get for you?"
The girls exchanged furtive glances and laughed under their breath. The man sitting nearest to Henrietta cleared his throat and in a voice filled with contempt said, "Well, yes uh ma'am, uh sir, whatever." He glanced around the table, seeking the approval of his friends who laughed harder now. "I'm sure you've heard this before, but you are butt ugly."
Henrietta stashed her notepad inside a pocket on her dress. "We don't stand for talk like that around here."
"That so?" the man said, producing more laughter.
"Everything all right, Henrietta?"
She turned to see Leland approaching. "Everything is fine. These folks were just about to leave."
The man pushed out of the booth and people in the bar stopped talking. "We're not leaving."
Leland moved closer. "I run this place and if Henrietta says you're leaving, then you're leaving."
The man puffed out his chest like a rooster about to crow. "I don't care what this freak says, we aren't leaving until we've been served, and not by some big faggot in a dress."
Leland surged forward and Henrietta held him back. "I can handle this." She brought her face close to the man's face. He reeked of whisky. "You have five seconds to get out of here or I'm going to knock you on your ass."
He glanced at his friends and shrugged. "Can you believe this bitch?" His attention returned to her. He rolled up his sleeve to reveal a tattoo of a longhorn. "Football scholarship, University of Texas. You'd better watch who you threaten."
Henrietta started to count; "One, two—" She swung a hard looping right that caught the man in the mouth. He staggered and dropped. He opened his mouth to speak. Blood covered his lips and chin. He leaned and spit out three teeth. His eyes rolled back and his head dropped with a thud. Leland went behind the bar and brought out a glass jar that contained a large number of teeth. He picked the man's teeth off the floor and tossed them into the jar.
"Dentists must love you, Henrietta."
When her shift ended, Henrietta drove over to Alyssa's house. Alyssa answered the door with her hair wrapped in multi-colored curlers. "Damn, girl, you look like hell." She stepped aside to let Henrietta pass. Henrietta went into the family room where the television blasted. Alyssa grabbed the remote and muted the sound. "Bad day?"
Henrietta held up her battered knuckles. "Typical day."
"Poor baby. You'd think those fools would learn to stop teasing you." Alyssa walked into the kitchen. "Want something to drink? How about a whisky and coke?"
"No, I'm not in the mood."
Alyssa returned carrying a scotch on the rocks. "Have a seat and tell me what ails you."
"Are you sure you want to hear it?"
"Hell yeah, I'm your hair stylist."
Henrietta sank onto the couch. "I went to see Becky today."
Alyssa smiled behind her glass. "Did you talk to her?"
"No. I watched her from the car."
"Why didn't you go to the house?"
"Travis won't let me. He saw me today and threatened to call the sheriff."
"Don't pay him no mind."
Henrietta looked down at the floor. "I've been thinking about taking off."
Henrietta nodded. "I've saved some money."
"You sure that's what you want?"
"I don't know what I want anymore." Henrietta pushed off the couch. She walked to the window and stared into the darkness. "It's a curse you know, feeling like half a person."
Alyssa stood and walked over to press against Henrietta's back. She wrapped her arms around Henrietta's waist and squeezed. "You're a whole person, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise."
Henrietta turned to face her. "Thanks, I needed to hear that."
"So are you still going to Amsterdam?"
Alyssa leaned close to kiss Henrietta on the cheek. "You should sleep on it."
She stayed awake in bed waiting for Buck to return. He showed up at three in the morning, smelling of beer and perfume. Henrietta pretended to be asleep when he piled into the bed. She listened as his breathing slowed to a soft snore. Her thoughts drifted to the coffee can and Aretha's letter. She imagined herself sitting outside with Aretha, sipping coffee and arguing over the shape of clouds. She imagined herself holding Becky in her arms and telling her that she loved her. Henrietta buried her face in her pillow and started to cry.
Someone knocking on the trailer door pulled her from a dream. Henrietta blinked several times to allow her eyes to adjust to the morning light.
"Who is it?" Buck grumbled.
She sat up on her knees and peered through the mini blinds. "It's Clovis again."
"Wake up Henrietta. I've got some fellas who want to take a look at you."
She rolled off the bed and smoothed wrinkles on the front of her nightgown.
"Where you going?" Buck asked.
"To see Clovis."
"Why would you want to do that?"
Henrietta stopped in the doorway to look back at Buck. "It's my life," she said and closed the door behind her.
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